Winter break films you may have missed
The Daily Cardinal's arts staffers picked some of the most notable movies you might have forgotten to see amidst holiday cheer.
""Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Sqeakquel""
Nobody thought the sequel to ""Alvin and the Chipmunks"" would do a better job than Ingmar Bergman of making you question your belief in God. However, surely no benevolent deity would have unleashed such a travesty as this on mankind. ""The Squeakquel"" features Zachary Levi as the rodents' caretaker and David Cross returning to squander all of the comedy credibility he gained from ""Mr. Show"" and ""Arrested Development."" Also showing up are the female Chippettes, but other than that it's hard to determine exactly what's going on in this Kidz Bop album disguised as cinema, because there is nothing in the way of story, interesting characters or humor. When Pixar can turn out a masterpiece every year, there is absolutely no excuse for half-assed kid flicks like this. But ""The Squeakquel"" does have one redeeming value: it produces perhaps the defining cinematic depiction of sadness. Because if three CGI chipmunks dancing to ""Single Ladies"" isn't the absolute embodiment of depression, I don't know what is.
Recapping the plot of this blue box office monster seems redundant by now–odds are that just about everyone reading this paid their $12 into the $1.4 billion that James Cameron's 3-D journey to Pandora has made worldwide. If you've been hiding under a rock of unobtainium, ""Avatar"" takes us to a faraway world full of neon beasties who in the words of Colonel Quaritch ""would eat your eyes for Jujubees,"" combining the science fiction of ""The Matrix,"" the environmental overtones of ""Pocahontas"" and ""Dances with Wolves"" and the fantastic scope of ""Lord of the Rings"" into an epic that's a tad long, a tad preachy, but still well worth the inflated 3-D admission price.
""Up in the Air""
""Up in the Air"" is one of those rare films that actually deserves every bit of pre-Oscar hype that it receives. It is the deceptively simple story of a corporate ax-man (George Clooney) whose purpose in life is to rack up miles rather than human connections, but who comes to realize that it is a life as empty as it is free. Clooney's uncharacteristically vulnerable performance is devastating, while his co-stars, indie darling Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick of ""Twilight"" fame, are no less captivating. While ""Up in the Air"" stands proudly on its own as a character piece, what truly sets it apart is that it is the first film since the financial collapse to so accurately capture the frustration, anxiety and hope of recession-minded America. ""Up in the Air"" is not only a classic in the making, but also perhaps the film that will come to define this era of uncertainty.
In the celebrated 19th century detective series, the great detective Sherlock Holmes, along with his sidekick Dr. Watson, uses his cunning brilliance to solve London's most baffling crimes. To the series' longtime devotees, Holmes' sheer wit sets him apart from other heroes. In this winter's screen adaptation, the title character in ""Sherlock Holmes"" retains his classic shrewd eye for detail but is inflated with a generous helping of brawn. However, if you see this film with an open mind, Sherlock Holmes is a clever mystery with much to offer. Director Guy Ritchie's dark and brooding London is a feast for cinematic eyes. Robert Downey Jr. plays a sharp and eccentric Holmes in a world where clues come first. His banter with Watson (Jude Law) is spot-on, showing both annoyance and intense camaraderie. This sharp who-done-it tale is immensely enjoyable and a perfect way to cap off the holiday season.
Based on John Carlin's novel ""Playing the Enemy,"" ""Invictus"" is the story of the South African national rugby team's historic journey to the 1995 World Cup championship match. Newly elected president Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman) is faced with extreme racial tension and widespread prejudice throughout South Africa as the era of apartheid comes to an end. Mandela recognizes the need to find a unifying force within his nation and settles on the Springboks, the country's national rugby team, led by captain Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon). Despite a slow start and a relatively predictable plotline, director Clint Eastwood provides a straightforward and moving message in this feel-good sports film. Both Freeman and Damon give strong, emotional performances that make the movie worth seeing.
Nancy Meyers has written another formulaic romantic comedy in ""It's Complicated."" Meyers' fatigued story is saved by amazing performances from Meryl Streep, Steve Martin, Alec Baldwin and John Krasinski. Streep plays a divorcée, Jane, whose marriage ended after her husband, Jake (Baldwin), had an affair. A decade after the divorce, Streep is finally moving on with her life and starting a new romance with her architect, Adam (Martin). In a drunken stupor, Jake and Jane have the best sex that either can remember. Jane finds herself torn between the rekindled relationship with Jake, a new relationship and life with Adam and the desire to take revenge on Jake's new wife (the woman for whom he left Jane). Streep, Baldwin and Martin bring levels of complexity to divorcées that go beyond cynicism, and show the pain, scars and realization that love is possible after a failed marriage.
In director Rob Marshall's first film since the extremely successful ""Chicago,"" Italian filmmaker Guido Contini (Daniel Day-Lewis) must produce a new film to meet high expectations while being haunted by the various women in his life. It was a seemingly perfect recipe: Oscar-nominated Marshall, an incredible star-studded cast (Day-Lewis, Judi Dench, Marion Cotillard and Nicole Kidman, to name a few), and a musical based on Federico Fellini's ""8 1?2"" combined to generate extensive buzz, which made the over-the-top musical numbers that much more disheartening (i.e. ""My Husband Makes Movies""). There's no doubt about Marshall's mastery of the alternate reality musical number (the vivacity behind ""Cinema Italiano"" and ""Be Italian"" was show-stopping), but with the film's overall struggle to translate coherently from the original theatrical production, this is sometimes difficult to appreciate.
The trailer for ""Brothers"" made the film look like a completely overdone melodrama, revolving around a tiresome family love triangle and some wild overacting by Tobey Maguire. So what a pleasant surprise it was to discover that ""Brothers"" is actually one of the most mellow Hollywood films in recent memory, and it is all the better for it. Maguire's character is a marine who disappears in Afghanistan and is presumed dead. Back at home, his wife (Natalie Portman) struggles to cope, while his black sheep brother (Jake Gyllenhaal) steps in to support her and her children. But this new family dynamic proves problematic when Maguire returns from combat. ""Brothers"" is an interesting study in family momentum, showing how families can be driven to remain in homeostasis, whether that is the ideal state or not. After seemingly endless looks into the seedy underbelly of family life in recent years, it is refreshing to see director James Sheridan craft such a measured and balanced examination.
—Todd StevensSubscribe to The Daily Cardinal Newsletter